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What's happened to whistling?

Why do humans whistle?

Whistling is the uttering of a clear sound by blowing or drawing air through puckered lips.

"Whistling" is from the Old English hwistlian and the proto-German khwis and refers to the imitative hissing sound of a serpent.

There are five types of whistling: Finger (wolf), hand, palate (roof), pucker, and throat. Humans whistle for many reasons. Among these are to express happiness, cope with boredom, alleviate anxiety, or simply enhance pleasure.

Whistling is one of the earliest forms of human communication and evolved from the calls of other animals and the utterances of our primate ancestors. Entire human languages are based around whistling (whistle speech). One of the most famous of these is Silbo Gomero - the so-called "whistling language" of the Canary Islands. It has four vowels, four consonants, and over 4000 words - all of which are whistled. Other whistling languages are spoken in Burma, China, Greece, Mexico, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, and Turkey.

Why don't we whistle as much as we used to?

(Asked by Nicole Haack, The Nicole Haack Program, Radio 5AA, Adelaide, Australia

No scientific studies exist to back up the claim that humans whistle less, more, or just about the same today compared with a generation ago. But the popular perception certainly exists that humans now whistle less.

If so, is it because people are less happy, less bored, less anxious, or less desirous of pleasure? It is difficult to prove any of these. Perhaps it is partly due to technology. Radios and music players are now very portable. People when walking used to whistle. Now they are hooked up to their iPods where they only listen.

Or, it may be partly due to the fact that most popular songs today are less "whistleable" than tunes of yesteryear. Try whistling a rap! Or it may even be that we have less time for whistling today as so many of us lead increasingly busy lives. We also live more crowded lives too. We may be concerned about offending people who may regard our whistling as an infringement upon their space and privacy. Or it may be that whistling is simply regarded today as unfashionable.

In an interview, a famous super model said that models never smile on the catwalk because smiling is considered by the industry to be unfashionable and unsophisticated. If it can happen to smiling, it can happen to whistling.

Whistling facts

Abnormal whistling can be a symptom of epilepsy.

Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the great English literary figure, suffered from involuntary whistling. It is now believe he suffered from Tourette’s syndrome.

Whistling Face Syndrome (aka Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome) is a rare inherited disorder involving craniofacial and often limb abnormalities. The mouth is tiny and in a permanent puckering position resembling someone trying to whistle, hence the name.

Russian folklore holds that whistling brings bad luck. ®

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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